There is a sky blue hair tie that I wore on my wrist for several months in middle school. It was a promise to myself that I would start wearing hijab. As it grew increasingly tattered, my mother asked me why I couldn’t just throw it away. The truth — that it represented my desire to be myself, to be clearly Muslim, to honor my promise — was too spiky and scary for words, so I swallowed it down and told her I just liked the color. Eventually, I lost it.
I did not start wearing hijab as soon as I knew I wanted to. In my predominantly white middle and high schools, it was bad enough being Black. Adding a hijab on top of that seemed like the height of reckless stupidity.
I knew from a very young age what wearing hijab would mean, practically speaking, because my mother wears one. Somehow it erodes people’s sense of boundaries in public. She’s had multiple encounters tinged with the unfortunate undertone of you people.
I can clearly remember one old man who followed us in a store, yelping about our “violent god” and our “violent religion.” I was big on rules as a kid, so I kept thinking that it wasn’t fair that he was allowed to unleash his awfulness on us when we were just trying to shop. It was okay, though, I told myself, because my mom was one of the bravest people I knew. She wouldn’t just let this go. My mom had been a cop back in Sudan, one of the first female CSI officers in the country, and she didn’t take crap from anyone. I waited for her to say something, to take care of it like she took care of everything.
Instead she said, “Okay, sir. Alright, sir.” Though her voice stayed calm, her nails left anxious half-moons in the skin of my arm. Her acquiescence told me that now was the time to be scared. I knew it was wrong, wrong, wrong, but his hatred was too strong for us to push back against.
If my warrior mother could not fight this, what hope was there for me?
So even when I wanted to start covering my head, I knew it wasn’t possible; my only chance of survival was becoming small enough to escape the notice of that type of all-encompassing hatred.
As I got older, I discovered that I could draw boys’ eyes, earn their notice and approval, by straightening my hair. So I spent hours pressing any trace of Africanness off my head. With every pass of the straightener, I was also burning away the forgotten promise of the blue hair tie.
My goal at the time was not grand: I wanted to be acceptable. They could give me that, the boys, with their easy confidence in their own inherent worth. It was the pressure of their gaze that held me together, and my dependence on them made me hate myself with the sort of violent passion that kept me up at night wondering at the profound fragility of my loathsome body and thrilling with the feeling of almost shattering.
It’s just a piece of clothing.
That’s a lie I sometimes tell when I’m asked about my hijab. My tongue is light and quick, and I use it to disarm people if I can. Life’s easier if it’s all a joke, if I’m far too cool to care about anything; if you look too closely at me and you ask me, I’ll tell you – well, I’ll say it’s just a piece of clothing. I’ll leave off the fact that it’s a piece of clothing I spent years working up the courage to put on.
I’m good at emitting a strong aura of no fucks given, but the real softness of me is there for anyone to see in the intricate folds of my hijab surrounding my face.
I’m proud of that vulnerability, though. Every day, I wrap my scarf and fulfill a covenant that I made — with God, yes, but also with that insecure and scared little girl who is still there, somewhere, inside me.
Recently, I tried to let the truth come out. I was with a friend, consuming secrets and Cinnabon with equal fervor; we’d reached that stage of friendship when you first start talking about things that actually matter. She asked me about my hijab, and at first I fed her my usual line, the it’s just clothing one.
She hmmmed thoughtfully, like she was supposed to, because it’s mind-blowing that I am so normal! So easy to relate to! I just wear clothes like everyone else! But then she shook her head and said, “Well, I wouldn’t want to wear it if it’s just clothing.”
I shoved a piece of cinnamon roll into my mouth and chewed, concerning myself with the creamy icing, the soft pastry, the sticky cinnamonness. “Okay,” I said at last, when I could no longer justify my silence. “You’re right.” I felt she deserved something for being brave enough to veer off-script, so I tried to come up with the words to explain it: “It’s like how I put on my gym clothes to trick myself into going to the gym. Because then you feel stupid if you don’t end up going. Well, hijab is my spiritual gym outfit.”
That was a little bit closer to the truth, but not all of it. I’ve said so many pointedly casual things about my hijab over the years that earnestness now dissolves on my tongue. I wear my hijab every day because I want to fulfill what I believe to be God’s command, and I want to show my commitment to Islam, a great source of happiness and strength in my life. Becoming visibly Muslim in this way, for me, is a declaration that I refuse to apologize for my faith, regardless of how others choose to define or revile it.
How can I even begin to explain what it felt like the first time I put on the hijab with the intention of committing to it? No matter how cool I try to be, internally I am given to melancholy, melodrama, all the melos, never mellow — but in that moment, I felt nothing but bubbly giddiness. It was the sort of happiness that belongs to children, happiness I used to think you lost when you first learned to worry about what hides in your mirror.
My veiling is my emancipation, and that is not a contradiction.
I don’t cover myself for men. I am under no illusions that this scarf protects me from them. I know that I cannot control how others will react to me, that my hijab cannot prevent them from firing stinging arrows of male entitlement into my person as I walk the streets, that it cannot stop them from contorting me in their minds into something I am not. But it is powerful to know that I can control what they see, that I can take the radical step of declaring they have no right to view me if I do not wish them to, that it is up to me and only me to decide what will remain hidden and what will be exposed. I find an intense joy in that power.
Even if I hadn’t always known that men will always look, I would have figured it out shortly after I started wearing hijab, when I went to Costa Rica for an internship. In a country where I am taller than the average man and Muslims are a vanishingly small minority, I was anything but inconspicuous. Every time I left the house, I was catcalled and teased. I got used to the daily barrage of harassment from the men at the construction site I passed on the way to work. One day, one of them finally got me to stop by yelling out, “Asalamu Alaikum!” Another one tag-teamed with, “Masha Allah!”
Here’s the kicker, what makes me wish I could rewind and try again – I smiled for them. I stopped and pretended like they weren’t horrifyingly creepy and I smiled. I wish I’d said something devastatingly clever that would make them realize I was done with their nonsense. I wish I had at least shot them a death glare or told them to shut up. Instead, I smiled, because back then I was still busy cutting myself down to size. I was terribly homesick; it was my first time abroad alone. So to hear what had always been beautiful phrases to me, the words of my friends and family that I desperately missed, twisted up and thrown back at me by men who felt entitled to my attention, maybe even my body – it messed me up.
When I tell this story now, I smirk and say that I have to admire their commitment. These men probably had to do research so they might more effectively insert themselves into my private space! I don’t talk about how unsafe I felt. I used to love those walks to and from work, the sunshine smiling on gated houses that reminded me of my family’s home in Sudan, the store where once a week I stopped to buy a torta chilena as a special treat, the dogs that always barked good morning and good afternoon to me. For a brief moment, those men were able to snatch that all away from me, and they distorted my ancestors’ language to do it. I was Little Red Riding Hood and my wolves came for me, cloaked in my grandmother’s voice. I felt like I was eight years old again, in that store with my mother, her hand pulling me away from someone who wished us harm, her fear tasting metallic in my mouth.
I get scared, now, waiting for trains. I recently read about Muslim women targeted in public by fools who think attacking women like us is an effective blow against faraway terrorists. On the train platform, I survey everyone around me, analyzing them. That one’s a mom with kids, she’s probably safe. That guy is wearing a dorky sweater vest; no one could attack or kill someone else while wearing a sweater vest.
It only takes one misguided soul to kill a woman. It’s a morbid thing to imagine, but I can’t help it. What would it feel like to be thrown in front of a speeding train? Would I die instantly, or would I feel every bone in my body shatter? Would they scoop up enough of my remains for my mother to recognize me?
But, still, no matter how afraid I sometimes am, I will not remove my hijab. There are some things I cannot compromise on. It is true that there are some who will reject me, dismiss me, because of this scarf I wear, but that is nothing compared to the senseless tragedy of rejecting myself.
I remember what my old blue hair tie looked like near the end, all stretched out of shape, hundreds of little threads trying to escape, the elastic visibly strained. I wore it as a promise to myself that one day I would wear hijab. It was a promise delayed by a young girl who was sure that, alright, tomorrow I’ll get over my fears, tomorrow will be better. In the long intervening years, when I spent so much money and time scorching my hair, when I slashed my food intake down to almost nothing because my thighs were too Sudanese to fit right in American jeans, when my stomach was full of an acid unhappiness I couldn’t trace – I never guessed that I would turn out to be right; that one day, I would be brave and be enough for myself. Doesn’t it seem like a small miracle that what used to be a longed-for tomorrow is now one of my yesterdays? Should I let that go? How could anyone even ask me to?
I’ll keep believing in tomorrow. I’ll learn to take up space without apology and, one day, I’ll be able to wait for a train without contemplating my possible murder; and maybe those two vows aren’t related, but it feels like they’re entwined together in the creases of my veil. It’s going to take some work to create the tomorrow I hope for, but I know I am already striving for it: My hijab is an action, a choice I make every day, an affirmation of some essential truth about myself. I’m damn proud of it. And that’s a solid first step.